Earlier this month, President Obama nominated Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve Board. If confirmed, she will be the first Democrat to lead the Fed since the 1970s, the most powerful economist in the country, and the first woman to lead the Fed. Three guesses which one the media has fixated on, and the first two don’t count.
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“Still months away from actually starting the job, Yellen has already inspired the following headlines,” writes Sheelah Kolhatkar at BloombergBusinessweek. “‘Move over Angela Merkel, Yellen may become world’s most powerful woman‘; ‘A Woman Virtually Nobody Has Heard Of Is On The Verge Of Becoming The Most Powerful Woman In The World‘; ‘Janet Yellen, the most powerful woman in US history.'”
Prior to her nomination, Yellen taught at Harvard and U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, served as chair of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, and was president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She’s currently vice chair of the Fed, and has earned praise from President Obama for foreseeing the housing market bubble before it popped and for “understanding the human costs” of the recession.
Yellen is widely held to be a “dove,” meaning that she’s more concerned with unemployment than inflation.
“She’s even more of a dove than Bernanke is, but there’s nobody who can say she’s not credentialed because of the range of experience she’s got,” says J. Alfred Broaddus, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, in an interview with Bloomberg. “She has experience that almost nobody else can bring to the table at this point.”
So why the focus on her sex? In short, it’s because there are so few women in powerful roles in government and business.
“Economic and military positions, especially, have generally gone to men in government, even as similar ceilings crack across the workforce, and even after Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine Albright as secretary of State in 1997, making her the highest-ranking woman in the nation, ever,” write Joe Coscarelli and Kat Stoeffel at New York magazine. “…While many positions have opened to women over the years, there are still dozens of key jobs in Washington that have only ever been held by men: Three of the top departments have never been headed by a woman, and a few dozen more senior government positions, many of them appointed, are still waiting for their first female.”
These positions include directors of the NSA, CIA, and FBI, chief justice of the supreme court, secretary of the treasury, secretary of defense, librarian of congress, and chief performance officer, as well as president and vice president of the United States.
In that context, it’s really not surprising that observers can’t get past Yellen’s sex to see her qualifications. Hopefully, her nomination will start us on a path toward evaluating candidates on their skills and accomplishments, not their gender.
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